Why should you never write a letter with a red felt pen? What effect does it have on your biorhythm, when the mosque around the corner installs new loudspeakers? What do you do, when a stranger gives you a jar of pebbles? How do you survive driving on the wrong side of the road at the Dakar Rally? And the key question: What happens when a couch potato and his wife are energised by an intensive French language course and are then sent to the most West African country of all?
Answers to these questions can be found in the book, “No Permanent Injuries”, which recounts the story of the first three of ten years which my wife, Romy, and I spent living in the Fouta-Djallon highlands. We worked in various rural development projects in the fields of health and education in Guinea. We were the only “portos” (i.e. white people) within a four-hour drive. These were ideal conditions for experiencing plenty of culture shock. And, on the other hand, for failing to recognise a few cultural differences.
Even in the projects we were engaged in, our Northern expectations sometimes collided head-on with Southern reality. I reckoned that there were two ways to deal with the situation. I could become bitter. Or I could see the funny side of it all. I chose the latter. Faux pas, intercultural slip ups, and project flops were turned into humorous round robin emails, which were read by a growing number of recipients. One day I received the first response which encouraged me to “Turn them all into a book!” After the fourth such encouragement, I set about revising the stories. And two publishers were actually interested in the manuscript.
What did the book do for me? A great deal, in many ways. The writing enriched my life. Not necessarily financially, but definitely through meetings and conversations with people who actually bought the book. Strangers wrote to me about their experiences: "That’s exactly what’s happening to me.” Last but not least, the book, or rather the African intermezzo described in it, led me (indirectly) into my current work as a senior diplomat.
There’s no doubt about it, writing gives me great pleasure. But the Guinean stories were more than that. In some ways they were even a kind of writing therapy. Muggings, riots, shortages, or simple theft from projects were easier to cope with, when I wrote a story about each of these happenings. I was then able to see problems from a "healthy perspective". And I learned to laugh at myself once again.
I well remember sitting in my study one evening after I had taken a few blows during a robbery. With ice on my forehead and in a glass of whisky, I reflected on the risky adventure story behind this particularly traumatic journey and soon typed the first version into my laptop.
Of course, I was not able to (and still cannot) laugh about all my experiences. Some were too awful or too tragic. But consciously evaluating events – and, by the way, actively forgiving people – helped me to make peace – even with the most traumatic episodes. At the end of the day, I’m left with wonderful memories and a few scars, but, most importantly, no permanent injuries.
Heiko Schwarz lived in Guinea from 2002 to 2012 (published in transfer volume 1/2017)